Thursday, July 19, 2012

Food-Talk, Friends, and Ramekins

I love food and I'm not afraid to say it.  But it's not about eating food...well, not entirely.  My love is of the possibilities, the creation, the idea that every experience can be a new one with the addition of a little spice.  I get excited to try new techniques or mixing ingredients together just to see what happens, and it's an incredible feeling when it works and everything balances and tastes delicious.  My meals bring me great pride which make me want to share them...maybe too much.  I mean, my friends and family definitely aren't complaining about having to partake in the products of my culinary obsession.  However, I think that I have begun to wear away at their patients and interest when it comes to talking about food.  My food-talk is non-stop - a new recipe I saw online; Mark Bittman's ingredient of the week; the ground cherries I found at Gravity Hill and what I could possibly do with them; the daily question that grates at my family: "What should we have for dinner?"  When I go on a tirade about how I prepared the cabbage I made for dinner last night or an idea I had for zucchini oatmeal, my loved ones usually give me a patronizing smile and blankly nod until I've exhausted myself.  I have apologized to them, but I can't help it - food just gets me really excited, passionate, and apparently very talkative.  However, I think that I have found my savior, the solution to my gab problem, and her name is Chelsea.
Fresh farm veg on a cutting board is happiness.
Chelsea works with me at Main Street, moonlights as a chef at a New Orleans style restaurant, and is just as much of a foodie as I am.  She's a friend that I can talk to about the zucchini flowers I found at the farmer's market but don't know what to do with, and instead of having her eyes glaze over, her excitement rises to meet mine as she gives me her grandmother's fried zucchini flower recipe (which I made and was unbelievable).  What I appreciate most is that when we talk it's not one-sided, it's a conversation - we bounce ideas off one another, share advice, recipes, techniques.  I feel like I've learned so much just from talking to her over the past couple of months, but last week I went over her house for dinner and learned even more from watching her cook.  She made a simple pasta dish with roasted vegetables, except it was a completely innovative meal for me.  After she mixed the roasted vegetables into the pasta, she finished it off by sauteing some garlic in olive oil and pouring it on top.  Then - the most exciting part - the toasted bread crumbs.  On the table was a little ramekin filled with bread crumbs (for those who don't know, a ramekin is a little ceramic bowl that can withstand high temperature, which makes them the perfect vessel for cooking and serving dishes, and holding bread crumbs).  I didn't quite understand what they were for, until Chelsea sprinkled some on top of her bowl of pasta.  I was hesitant at first, but it was amazing.  It added crunch, a surprising texture, to the pasta that is usually lacking. Toasted bread crumbs!  On Pasta!  Who would've thought?!  Apparently Chelsea and her family, since they've been doing it for years.  For dessert, we had mini-blueberry peach pies also served in ramekins, which happen to be the perfect individual serving size.  Everything was wonderfully delicious, and she gave me so many ideas for things to do in my own cooking...which I put to good use this past weekend.
Fried Zucchini Blossoms thanks to Chelsea's Grandmother
My college friend Kit came for dinner, and Chelsea had a huge impact on the meal I made him.  Not only did she give me inspiration, but she gave me my very own set of ramekins since I couldn't stop talking about them, and I cannot express my thanks to her enough.  For Kit, I made tri-colored penne with roasted tomatoes.  Usually my pasta dishes come out pretty much the same, since I always use the same ingredients, ratio of seasonings, and techniques.  But for this meal, I stole Chelsea's method of pouring the garlic and olive oil over the dish at the end and finishing it off with bread crumbs - it turned a simple pasta into something new and different and fabulously delicious.  For dessert, I also made individual ramekin pies - I made a vegan chocolate cream pie since that's Kit's favorite and topped it with some honey glazed fruit, another Chelsea inspiration (except don't tell Kit it was vegan, he wasn't supposed to find out...oops).  Kit ate two mini-pies and finished mine that night, and then had two more the next day.  My brother, who is highly critical of my cooking and tired of my healthy meals, was impressed and said that I might actually be able to do this whole cooking thing for real - thanks, Des.  And I have to say, I even impressed myself with these little pies.

Moral of the story is that I am so happy to have found a fellow culinary enthusiast friend that I can food-talk with and who is just as passionate about it as I am.  I find that knowledge and understanding is best gained through sharing and conversation.  And it's far more enjoyable and much more potent than studying from a book or reading off the internet.  I just can't wait to have Chelsea over my house so I can cook for her.  Only question is...what should we do for dinner?

Roasted Tomato Penne

1 pint cherry tomatoes
10 basil leaves, sliced
¼ cup panko bread crumbs
1 tbs butter
½ lb penne
1 clove garlic, sliced

olive oil
salt and pepper

+ Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
+ Halve most of the tomatoes, keeping a hand-full whole.  Place the tomatoes in a medium bowl and season with salt and pepper.  Allow to sit for about ten minutes so that thee juices can seep out.  Then, add pepper and half the basil.  Drizzle with olive oil and mix so that all the tomatoes are well coated.  Place in a shallow baking dish, bake for 40 minutes, or until tomatoes are shriveled and juicy.
+ While the tomatoes are roasting, heat a splash of oil and butter in a medium pan.  Once hot, add panko.  Stirring occasionally, cook until the bread crumbs are brown and toasted.  Set aside.
+ Cook and drain the pasta.  Set aside.

+ Once the tomatoes are done, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a small pan.  When the oil is hot, add the garlic.  Saute until the garlic just begins to brown.
+ Toss the tomatoes and remaining basil in with pasta, mix until combined.  Drizzle garlic and oil over pasta.  Serve each bowl sprinkled with bread crumbs.

Boy-Approved Vegan Chocolate Cream Pie

makes 8 mini-pies
10 chocolate graham crackers
⅓ cup butter, melted
1 bag dark chocolate chips
⅓ cup coffee liqueur
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 package silken tofu, drained
3 tbs honey
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh strawberries, quartered

+ Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
+ Place graham crackers and butter in a food processor, blend until the crackers are broken down, and the mix resembles bread crumbs.
+ Place about three tablespoons of cracker into the bottom of each ramekin.  Push the cracker into the bottom of the dish, making sure there are no holes in the crust.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Remove and allow to cool.
+ While the crust is baking, bring a medium pot of water to a simmer over medium heat.  Place the chocolate chips, liqueur, and vanilla in a medium metal bowl set over the simmering water.  Stir often to prevent the chocolate from burning.
+ Once the chocolate is completely melted, place the chocolate, tofu and 1 tbs honey in the food processor.  Blend until smooth.  Pour some chocolate mixture into each ramekin, leaving a little room in the top of each.  Refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm.
+ Right before eating, toss berries in 2 tbs of honey, mixing until well coated.  Spoon some berries on top of each pie to serve.

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